Film Review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’

'Straight Outta Compton' Review: N.W.A. Biopic
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Director F. Gary Gray turns the meteoric rise and fractious fall of rap supergroup N.W.A. into a sprawling, exhilarating Los Angeles hip-hop epic.

The ferocious rhymes of hip-hop icons N.W.A.’s controversial 1988 anthem “F–k tha Police” scarcely seem to have aged when they blast on to the soundtrack of “Straight Outta Compton,” echoing into a world where the abuse of black Americans at the hands of law-enforcement officials remains common headline news. But if “Compton” is undeniably of the moment, it’s also timeless in its depiction of how artists and writers transform the world around them into angry, profane, vibrant and singular personal expression. A conventional music-world biopic in outline, but intensely human and personal in its characterizations and attention to detail, director F. Gary Gray’s movie is a feast for hip-hop connoisseurs and novices alike as it charts the West Coast rap superstars’ meteoric rise, fractious in-fighting and discovery that the music business can be as savage as the inner-city streets. A very smart piece of counter-programming in a summer dominated by lily-white tentpole movies, Universal’s Aug. 14 opener should keep the studio clocking much dollars at the late-summer box office.

When it dropped in 1988, N.W.A.’s first studio album (from which the movie takes its title) shook the hip-hop world from its solid East Coast moorings with its button-pushing, madly rhythmic depictions of thug life in South L.A. — an ur-text for the subgenre that would become known as “gangsta rap,” though N.W.A.’s members themselves preferred the term “reality rap.” Along with Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (released the same year), “Compton” was the album that fully announced hip-hop as the rage-filled protest music of its era — a primal scream from under the boot of white authority, or what the critic Nelson George called “the full-blown sound of revolution.” The group’s charismatic 19-year-old rapper and lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played here by his real-life son, O’Shea Jr.) said he and his bandmates were merely “street reporters,” filing dispatches from the from the front lines of a resource-starved community engaged in trench warfare with the Daryl Gates-era LAPD. Everything about N.W.A. was confrontational, starting with their name (short for “Niggaz With Attitude”).

Gray’s panoramic film (running a densely packed two-and-a-half-hours) is the story of N.W.A., yes, but also of the city in those same years — a long-simmering discontent that finally erupted into the 1992 riots. But first we begin in 1986 with the DNA of N.W.A. — the friendship between Cube and aspiring DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and their courtship of a neighborhood drug dealer, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), to funnel some of his illicit funds into a record label (appropriately dubbed Ruthless) for burgeoning West Coast hip-hop acts. And it’s Wright (brilliantly played by Mitchell, the biggest revelation among the young actors) who emerges as “Compton’s” most compellingly complex character, a hip-hop Napoleon whose small stature and high-pitched voice mask a shrewd business acumen.

Even when Gray (who made his feature debut directing the real Ice Cube in the stoner-slacker classic “Friday”) puts “Compton” through the somewhat familiar biopic paces, he brings a richness of observation to the table that transcends cliche. (The exhaustively researched screenplay is credited to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, from a story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Berloff.) The live performance and recording scenes have the same loose, semi-improvised feel of the ones in the recent Beach Boys drama “Love & Mercy,” especially when Eazy steps up to a mic for the very first time to lay down his hit single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” and Cube performs an early version of “Gangsta Gangsta” at a nightclub where slow-jam R&B is the house style.

These early brushes with fame bring the N.W.A. boys into the orbit of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, sporting a swooping gray toupee), a veteran rock manager who pledges to lead his new clients into the lap of white music-biz respectability. But while Heller may be the prototypical wolf in Jewish cowboy couture, “Straight Outta Compton” is loath to pass rash judgments on its characters, whose motivations Gray and the writers strive to understand even when their actions verge on the monstrous. (The only unqualified monster here is the bodyguard-turned-mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, played with terrifying force of presence by R. Marcos Taylor.)

“Compton” doesn’t make the N.W.A. members themselves into paragons of virtue, even as it suggests that much of their swagger and braggadocio were more performance than reality — as well as necessary defense mechanisms on streets where real gangbangers posed a serious threat and where the police made little distinction between one type of young black man and another. Gray plunges us into that pressure-cooker atmosphere repeatedly, including one scene — depicted here as the inspiration for “F–k tha Police” — that can’t help but send a chill through the theater in light of the recent events in Ferguson and other black communities: While taking a break from the “Compton” recording sessions, the rappers are descended on by a swarm of Torrance cops who humiliatingly shake them down while disparaging the very existence of hip-hop.

Gray casts a wider net in the film’s second half, as friction among the three N.W.A. principals (over money, natch) sends them spinning off into their own orbits, Cube with movie projects and a platinum solo career, Dre as a prolific producer who — in and out of tumultuous partnership with Knight — helps to foster a new generation of hip-hop talent (including Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Eminem). The former friends turn rivals, trading barbed insults on their albums and occasional fisticuffs in public. Then L.A. burns, and out of the ashes, a relaxing of tensions — and hope of an N.W.A. reunion — begins to take hold. But even as the film broadens its scope, Gray’s direction remains sharp and vibrant, giving us a “Rashomon”-style sense of how post-N.W.A. life looked from each character’s perspective, and reaching unexpected depths of emotional power as Wright starts to succumb to the AIDS-related complications that would cut his life short, at age 31, in 1995.

The movie has been made in high but never overindulgent style, with Matthew Libatique’s richly textured widescreen camerawork deliberately avoiding shopworn images of South Central life while evoking a vivid sense of place, and the editing of Billy Fox and Michael Tronick keeping the complex narrative moving smoothly from beat to beat. The encyclopedic soundtrack — ranging across the N.W.A. catalog, its members solo ventures, their old-school R&B influences, and the top-40 pop hip-hop would displace as the dominant sound of the era — has been assembled with similarly meticulous care.

Film Review: 'Straight Outta Compton'

Reviewed at AMC Loews Lincoln Square, New York, July 30, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 146 MIN.

Production

A Universal release presented with Legendary Pictures in association with New Line Cinema/Cubevision/Crucial Films of a Broken Chair Flickz production. Produced by Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, F. Gary Gray, Scott Bernstein, Dr. Dre. Executive Producers, Will Packer, Adam Merims, David Engel, Bill Straus, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni. Co-executive producers, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus.

Crew

Directed by F. Gary Gray. Screenplay, Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff; story, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, Berloff. Camera (color, widescreen), Matthew Libatique; editors, Billy Fox, Michael Tronick; music, Joseph Trapanese; music supervisor, Jojo Villanueva; production designer, Shane Valentino; art director, Christopher L. Brown; set decorator, Christopher Carlson; set designer, Bryan Lane; costume designer, Kelli Jones; sound (Dolby Digital), Willie Burton; supervising sound editors, Mark. P. Stoeckinger, Greg Hedgepath; re-recording mixers, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano; visual effects supervisor, Bernhard Kimbacher; visual effects producer, Geoff Anderson; visual effects, Image Engine Design, Lola VFX; special effects supervisor, Eric Rylander; associate producers, Robert Redd, Darrell Jackson; stunt coordinator, Lin Oeding; assistant director, Lisa Satriano; casting, Cindy Tolan, Victoria Thomas.

With

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Cara Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Giamatti, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Joshua Brockington, Sheldon A. Smith, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon III, Aeriel Miranda.

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  1. Straight Otta Compton takes place in 1986 in Compton Ca. Were a group of young adults selling drugs get into a fight with guns and there is a large brown pit bull dog there. A police tank truck comes down the street and investigates the scene at a home with a outdoor swing set.

  2. Joanna Telli says:

    Now the manager is suing for $110M lol… so bitter.

  3. Vickey says:

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  4. Matt P says:

    My theater in San Jose was packed! People said they were going to see it again!

  5. alicedymally says:

    Great review. The movie was fantastic!

  6. Rene Rose says:

    This movie was too short and should have been co-directed by someone who knows how to put real facts into a story. It is kind of hard to fit all of the wonderful things that came out of this group. You have artists like Tupac and Bone Thugs and Harmony that were briefly viewed. This creates confusion for the next generation. They have no idea what is going on and ask questions during the movie to try and catch up. How can you leave out songs like “Real MFN Gz?” This was the song that truly made me an Eazy-E fan. To see the growth of the group is an amazing thing but maybe this movie should have been divided into 2. We, the audience want more and do not mind you the directors and writers taking this movie back and editing it for 2 parts, maybe even 3. I did not like the scene where Tupac was recording ‘California Love” because we are talking about Tupac here. Not saying to make it all about him but he was damn near the Martin Luther King of our generation. What about Eazy-E helping Bone Thugs and Harmony create their unique sound that my 65 year old father enjoys? Leaving things out like this is a tragedy to music, a tragedy to the legacy that Eazy-E left behind. The dope dealer who put the money behind these men. But other than that, thanks for creating the movie and bringing me back to my childhood to remember the L.A. Riots, the Rodney King beating and the love and freedom of speech we can put in our music. Just remember you are teaching the next generation and they might need a little bit more being technology babies and all. -Rene Rose

  7. [Mixtape] Straight Outta Da Catalog (N.W.A.) @DjSmokeMixtapes @DJStreetCred @Spinrilla » http://t.co/IVgxZmigbX

  8. RobThom says:

    “When reality is described as “race-baiting” you may be dealing with a closeted racist.”

    The reality is the that race-baiter is the racist.
    Desperately pointing their finger at everyone else to disguise their own racism. Instigating culture wars, racial animosity and violence in the streets for a profit.

    The smug white liberal glorifying the soundtrack to Black on Black crime in the media from the safety of a pricey lib enclave, paid for with the profits from lording over Blacks in slums of poverty for the last 50 years.

  9. FACE says:

    Nice unnecessary, race-baiting use of ‘lily white’ there. Well done.

  10. Janet says:

    Hopefully the film does well. The trailer is awful.

  11. Bert Q says:

    Just make money – who cares about reality…or facts.

  12. I recently interviewed R. Marcos Taylor, who plays “Suge Knight” in the movie. Look for it on my show “Martial Arts Mania!”.

  13. rumrunna says:

    Now we need a 2 Live Crew Bio Pic . . . Luke and crew impacted all genres of music and forced the Supreme Court to further define the First Amendment for all artists and listener. They also single-handedly removed a governor while making some cheese at the same time.

  14. Erick Osorio says:

    Being an extra for the film was a great experience, but I was most impressed with how Gray’s direction was sharp and very precise. The concert set was amazing, great prop design. Once the cameras were rolling, and the scene was being filmed, I knew the level of detail and authenticity, Gray was going for. Glad to hear the finished product lives somewhat to it’s name.

  15. MC Conscientious Objector says:

    You might want to post a spoiler alert at the top of your review. I didn’t want to know something was going to happen in the break from the recording session! Fortunately I looked away and picked up in the next paragraph, but now I won’t be caught by surprise at that point.

    And yes, Ren is one of the best parts of that first album. “For the record it’s Ren but for the street it’s Villain, and strapped with a gat it’s more like Matt Dillon.”

    • RTF916 says:

      Didn’t see anything in the review that isn’t already common knowledge. NWA’s story is already for public consumption, readily available with a quick google search, and common knowledge to anyone that was remotely a fan in that era. Any signature, surprising content of the writers, director, or actors that may take place in this film, which a biopic is typically dependent on, is only given in tiny samples in the review from what I can see.

  16. DJ says:

    I hope this film breaks box office records, but I find it a bit dull to Yella and Ren pushed to the background. Yella produced alongside of Dre and probably more experienced – arguably even more talented. Ren and DOC practically saved the franchise with their lyrical contributions when Ice Cube bolted after the groups first major tour. Niggaz 4 Life (post Ice Cube) was a better album. However I will go into the theater watching with low expectations and hope to be surprised.

    • RTF916 says:

      Yeah, I’m sure an NWA movie which focused primarily on MC Ren and DJ Yella would be a box office smash. Come on, man. It’s a movie. A studio funded movie, at that. You know they’re going to focus on the stars.

      • Soapstef says:

        This is why I’m not in any hurry to see it. I was hoping Yella & Ren would play a big part. I knew it would happen.

  17. LOL says:

    This movie is a tentpole posing as a sleeper. Watch it explode.

  18. Ed Lover says:

    I’m so annoyed that the trailers I’ve seen don’t list MC Ren or Yella at all. Guess I shouldn’t be suprised that they also don’t get mentioned in this review. They had an incredible impact on NWA and should get proper credit.

    • Daniels says:

      It’s just a trailer!!!
      They are in the film so what’s the problem? Stop complaining.

    • RTF916 says:

      Probably because….it’s a review of the the movie, not the group itself or any of its albums. Sheesh, what is wrong with some of the commenters here? Does anyone expect a studio movie production about NWA to focus on DJ Yella and MC Ren? Good grief, man.

  19. Reblogged this on WARR – We Are Regal Radio and commented:
    A very positive early review. Can’t wait until the 14th.

  20. Justin Greed says:

    I’d like F. Gary to chime in and explain how the individuals are being compensated, particularly Yella and MC Ren. I saw an interview were Yella said that Ice Cube and Dre were going to pay him a “consulting fee”? What does that entail? Are they getting any back end?Are they each at least going to see 7 figures? It’s not like Dre or Cube NEED it.

  21. Joe C says:

    Uh, Officer Wilson was acting in self defense in Ferguson. The evidence was so overwhelming Eric Holder couldn’t even convene a grand jury. Why do leftist “journalists” continue the fiction of “hands up, don’t shoot” which never happened.

    • Annie says:

      The District Attorney didn’t want to prosecute the officer, he even ignored the fact that one of the witnesses lied. The District Attorney said that he did all that he could to help the officer. That is not his job. Because the D.A. thought that he was working for the Police Officer, justice was not served.

  22. Annie says:

    The District Attorney didn’t want to prosecute the officer, he even ignored the fact that one of the witnesses lied. The District Attorney said that he did all that he could to help the officer. That is not his job. Because the D.A. thought that he was working for the Police Officer, justice was not served.

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